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Shōgun by James Clavell

Shogun

When my book club made it’s selections year ago, we decided to include the first two books of James Clavell’s asian saga. Shōgun was well-known, having been a best-seller when it was released in 1976.

The novel takes place during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  John Blackthorne is the pilot of a galley ship, that made it’s way across the Pacific Ocean and landed in Japan.  Initially, it looks as though Blackthorne and his crew are doomed.  The warlords don’t take kindly to strangers, and their trading connections with the Portuguese, along with the spread of Catholicism, mean that English Blackthorne and his Dutch seafarers are the enemy.

I love historical fiction, and assumed this book could fall into that category.  Trust me, it doesn’t.  They are so many inaccuracies, I could write a 20 page thesis paper on them.  However, I decided to take the story for what it was, and treat the “history” as if it were pure fiction.  By doing that, I was able to appreciate a master story-teller at his finest.  The book was very long – over 1100 pages, but the story had all the elements to capture your interest:  suspense, intrigue, war, treachery, love and sex.  My only other complaint was that sometimes I had trouble getting the characters straight.  All those unfamiliar Japanese names were hard to remember.  Also, as Anjin-san (the Japanese name for Blackthorne) learned the language, more and more comments were actually in Japanese.  And I couldn’t translate.

Still, I enjoyed the book, and look forward to the next in the series.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1976
1152 pages

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Nureyev: a Life by Julie Kavanagh

Nureyev

I’m a lover of classical ballet, and decided a couple of years ago to read and collect dance biographies.  Believe it or not, they are not always easy to find.  They go out of print quickly, so when I had the opportunity to lay my hands on Julie Kavanagh’s biography of the great Rudolf Nureyev, I grabbed it.

This was a difficult book to get through.  Kavanagh includes so much information, and comments from so many people that met Nureyev, that it became a chore reading it.  Some of the sources obviously didn’t know Nureyev well, and my conclusion was Kavanagh could have used a good editor.

I already knew that he had defected in Paris from the Soviet Union in 1961.  I knew he had a great dance partnership with Royal Ballet’s Margot Fonteyn.  I also knew he ended up being the artistic director for the Paris Opera Ballet, and that he died in 1993 of AIDS.

What I learned from Ms. Kavanagh’s biography was that he seemed self-absorbed, practiced the typical quick rotation of sexual partners and continued dancing long after he should have retired.

This portrayal of Rudolf Nureyev made me less appreciative of him.  In fact, I don’t think I would have liked him personally at all.  He seemed like an adolescent throughout his whole life.  But I’m not sure if that’s an accurate portrayal.  I’d rather have gotten to know “Rudik” through the eyes of one person who had a close relationship with him.  Obviously there were many who loved him.  Margot Fonteyn was one of them.  I doubt it was his talents as a dancer alone that captivated her.  I’ll have to keep searching for that better biography.

2 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2007
780 pages

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To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird

I’m sure most of us remember reading this novel in high school.  Recently, I took it upon myself to tutor my son with his 9th grade English, and had the opportunity to revisit this wonderful book.

Taking place in Alabama during the depression, Scout and her brother Jem observe a world where poverty and racist attitudes change their nice little community into an place they don’t recognize.  It is a coming of age story of the finest caliber.  Amazingly, Harper Lee was only 16 years old when she wrote it.  Her grasp of language, themes and literary devices would make most seasoned writers jealous.

I’m so glad I got the opportunity to read this again.  It is a piece of literature that any book lover would appreciate even more later in life.

5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1960
324 pages

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Classic John Deere by Randy Leffingwell

Classic John Deere

Classic John Deere: Waterloo Boy, Model D, Model C, Model A& B, 20 & 30 Series; co-written by Rod Beemer

Two books in one: Randy Leffingwell’s “Classic John Deere Tractors” and Rod Beemer’s “John Deere Two-Cylinder Tractors“. Leffingwell’s chapters give a good history of John Deere as the second oldest continuous manufacturer in the United States. Beemer’s contribution covers the popular 2-cylinder tractors in a short concise chapter. He also gives all of the popular derivations. This should come in handy in Rollag this year. The photography is excellent as well.

B
192 pages
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Prodigal Son by Edward Villella

Prodigal Son

For those of you who aren’t aware, my son aspires to be a professional ballet dancer.  He currently lives away from home much of the year to train, and as a parent, I try to learn as much about the ballet world as possible in order to understand what he’s talking about, and also to help him with decisions that would help his career.

That said, there aren’t that many books out there that talk about the world of a male ballet dancer.  I was excited to run across Edward Villella’s autobiography.  Villella was a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet while it was under the direction of George Balanchine.  He joined the company when he was 20 years old and danced for 16 years until an injury forced him to stop performing.  This was in 1972.  Since that time, he has been active in the ballet world, giving lectures, teaching and also founded the Miami City Ballet, serving as artistic director until 2012.

I have read a few dance autobiographies now, and I think Villella’s is exceptional.  Not only is does he share great stories of his time with Balanchine and the New York City Ballet, but he shares much valuable information on his growth as a dancer.  I remember reading Li Cunxin’s book, Mao’s Last Dancer, when he talked about needing to build up his leg muscles in order to gain height with his jumps.  This type of practical information is something every dancer, I’m sure, can relate to.  Villella talks about the mechanics of the movement, and how to grow as a dancer by examining the movements in context with the music.  He says he had literally no musicality when he began dancing.  It’s this mature, almost scientific approach that helped him as a dancer, and it was also applied in terms of artistry and characterization.  These things don’t necessarily come naturally to dancers – they must be studied and applied.

When Balanchine died, he bequeathed his works to his ex-wife and a few others.  In the terms of the Balanchine trust, any company performing his works must hire a stager who is familiar with the work to teach the performers how the great choreographer intended it to be done.  It’s the same principle here.  These things must be taught, studied and applied.

There is so much valuable information in this book (not to mention a fascinating life story).  I recommend it to anyone, but particularly those interested in dance, and dancers who aspire to professional careers.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1992
317 pages

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Dragon’s Lair by Sharon Kay Penman

Dragon's Lair

Sharon Kay Penman is my favorite author when it comes to historical fiction, and she wrote a four book mystery series that combines an exciting fictional mystery with her expertise on English history.  Dragon’s Lair is the third book in the Justin de Quincy mystery series.  As the Queen’s man (the Queen being Eleanor of Aquitaine), de Quincy is on a mission to Wales to find the missing ransom meant to free King Richard from his captors.

Those familiar with Penman’s Here be Dragons will be pleased to reacquaint themselves with Llywelyn the Great as he plays a key role in this mystery.  The story is exciting, and Penman creates characters that are memorable.

While I have enjoyed the first three mysteries, Dragon’s Lair is my favorite.  I can’t wait to find out what new adventure Justin de Quincy will embark upon in the next book,  Prince of Darkness!

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2003
339 pages

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